Jazz Is Dead Records JID015
Musical Performance: ****
Sound Quality: ***½
Overall Enjoyment: ***½
In 2017 Ali Shaheed Muhammad, formerly of A Tribe Called Quest, and composer/producer Adrian Younge launched a jazz concert series in Los Angeles, California. The series was titled Jazz Is Dead, and in 2020 they established a record label under the same name. Muhammad and Younge began recording music featuring jazz musicians, many of whose recordings had been sampled over the years on R&B and hip-hop tunes. In just three years, Jazz Is Dead has released 15 albums; an impressive accomplishment considering that Muhammad and Younge produce and play on all of them.
As the title indicates, Jazz Is Dead 15 is the label’s 15th release. Pianist and composer Garrett Saracho had released his first album on Impulse! Records to critical acclaim in 1973. Unfortunately, Impulse! was going through a change in its executive lineup at that time, which led, along with other factors, to En Medio not receiving the attention it deserved. The album faded quickly.
Saracho became disillusioned with the record industry and decided to study filmmaking. He worked in films, first as a carpenter, then as an editor and screenwriter. He made recordings in his home studio and toured with the band Redbone, which was led by his cousins Pat and Lolly Vegas, and later composed music for film and stage.
Muhammad and Younge were impressed by En Medio and brought Saracho to Linear Labs Studio, which Younge opened in 2018. The three co-composed the eight tunes on Jazz Is Dead 15: five are large-ensemble pieces, two are performed by smaller groups augmented with strings, and one track is recorded by a sextet.
The album features the eclectic mix of Latin jazz, rock, and funk that characterized En Medio. Saracho plays a sustained chord to introduce “Sabor del Ritmo,” accompanied by Younge on bass and Scott Mayo on flute. Drummer Mekala Session and percussionist Nicholas Baker provide a rich rhythmic pattern as other instruments filter in and Saracho adds more flourishes on piano. After about 30 seconds, the tune coheres into an Afro-Cuban rhythm, with Younge playing an electric-guitar riff that anchors the track as the large horn section builds an intense groove.
Saracho plays a bold chord progression against Baker’s congas on “Altitude,” which features a smaller ensemble. Session adds a series of rolls on his ride cymbal before entering the song fully, and Younge’s bass follows him closely to move the tune into funk. Younge layers in marimba and an aggressive electric-guitar line, and Session’s drumming becomes ever more dramatic and exciting. A little more than halfway through the tune, a string arrangement creates the feel of a 1970s detective-film soundtrack.
“White Buffalo” also has a touch of movie-soundtrack ambiance; not surprising, given that all three principals have experience in that area. As with many of the tunes on the album, it’s the often unexpected combinations of genres that make the music so exciting. On “White Buffalo,” Saracho, Muhammad, and Younge pull Latin jazz, funk, and film music together in an exotic blend.
Saracho’s arpeggios in the opening moments of “The Gardens” soon give way to lush chords as drums and Latin percussion enter. Mayo’s flute melodies float on an impressive horn arrangement, with Saracho’s piano and Younge’s marimba adding spice and texture to the mix. Saracho plays an understated, finely developed solo, with Younge’s marimba filling in behind him and the percussion keeping things at a brisk pace. The piece effortlessly segues into a mambo and Mayo plays an exciting flute solo, with Younge’s bass and marimba helping to carry him along. A further shift in rhythm introduces a section of solos by the various saxophonists in the band.
Most of the compositions on Jazz Is Dead 15 are tightly arranged to establish a mood, but with space to stretch out. Many of the players in the large ensemble take a solo in “Trucha,” and they make good use of their time. “Caló” closes the album on a high, with complex, crisscrossing rhythms and free-jazz sections that skirt anarchy but move quickly back to earth. Again, the arrangement gives a number of the musicians—including saxophonists Phillip Whack (credited as “Phillip Wack” on the album cover), David Urquidi, Jacob Scesney, and Jaman Laws—room to solo.
Younge and Muhammad produced, recorded, and mixed Jazz Is Dead 15 at Linear Labs. Dave Cooley cut the lacquer for the LP at LA’s Elysian Masters. At first, I found the recording to be a little reserved, but a slight roll up in volume brought the music into focus. Saracho’s piano rang out clearly, which is essential given it is at the center of the arrangements. Percussion and other instruments registered fully, and the bass sounded firm and punchy. I did wish for better separation between instruments during the densely arranged, large-ensemble portions of the album, but the spirit and enthusiasm of the music still came through.
I couldn’t determine who pressed the LP, which wasn’t solid black—the vinyl looked cloudy in spots. My copy played through with quiet backgrounds, however, and was flat and centered.
There’s nothing fancy about the packaging—the light cardboard inner sleeve features photos of the covers of other Jazz Is Dead releases, and the artwork is printed directly on the standard-weight cardboard album cover. It is housed in an outer sleeve that I could imagine getting jacked up if I pull the album off the shelf repeatedly, so I’ll probably put it in a plastic cover.
I sampled a few other Jazz Is Dead recordings. Some feature well-known musicians, such as Roy Ayers and Gary Bartz. Others present players who deserve wider renown, such as the Brazilian trio Azymuth, or the Los Angeles music collective Katalyst. All the music I heard made me want to make a deeper dive into this label’s already-impressive catalog. Garrett Saracho’s Jazz Is Dead 15 is a good place to start.
. . . Joseph Taylor